By Scott Stearns
Foreign ministers from Africa’s Sahelian countries are meeting in Algeria to better coordinate their response to al-Qaida-affiliated terrorists who are responsible for a series of bombings and kidnappings.
The meeting outside Algiers includes foreign ministers from Algeria, Burkina Faso, Chad, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. They are working on a joint plan of action to confront the group al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which operates across
parts of the Sahara kidnapping foreigners and bombing military posts.
The group claims responsibility for last week’s bombing of an army barracks in western Niger. It is holding two Spanish aid workers and an Italian couple kidnapped in Mauritania.
Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb last year killed a British hostage in Mali and shot dead a U.S. aid worker in Nouakchott before bombing the French Embassy there in August.
Mauritania’s state-run news agency says government officials are concerned the deserts of northern Mauritania and Mali will be the next battlefield as more Algerian terrorists cross the border to join the group.
While al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb is not large enough to topple a government, diplomats fear it could make the Sahara a safe haven for terrorists planning attacks elsewhere.
“I think there is a threat to stability in the sense that these are countries that are not terribly stable in the first place. This is not an organization that risks taking over a country,” says Marina Ottaway, who directs the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The Sunni group began in Algeria in 1992 after military rulers canceled parliamentary elections when it appeared Islamist groups might take power. They have since aligned themselves with the broader al-Qaida terrorist network, but Ottaway says they remain a loosely-organized group.
“They have had their problems in the sense that they started out trying to present themselves as, ‘We are it’, essentially,” said Marina Ottaway. “‘We are controlling all of the operations in the area.’ They have not succeeded in getting all groups to join them. The Libyans have not joined them.”
The U.S. State Department says it hopes the meeting in Algeria consolidates collective action against groups seeking to exploit the region to attack civilians.
The top U.S. military commander for Africa met with Algeria’s president last November to discuss joint anti-terrorism efforts. The head of U.S. Air Forces in Africa met with senior Algerian Air Force officers earlier this year.
Ottaway says too much U.S. involvement may be counter-productive.
“I think it is open to discussion to me whether it is really in the best interest of these governments to all come together, particularly to come together with the U.S. military, to try and work out a common front because in a sense, by doing that, they also encourage these various groups to come together,” said Ottaway. “All the groups involved in terrorist activities, kidnappings and so on, also find more of a reason to centralize their activities. So that it may in fact lead to have some unintended consequences.”
Regional diplomats say this meeting in Algeria is especially important given the fall-out over Mali’s release of four suspected militants last month. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb demanded their release or said it would kill French hostage Pierre Camatte.
He was freed, but Algeria and Mauritania withdrew their ambassadors to Mali in protest as they intended to try their own nationals among the suspected terrorists. Algeria said Mali’s actions played into the hands of the insurgents.